On First Day of Full Squad Workouts, Washington Nationals Step Up to the Plate

By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 20, 2009

VIERA, Fla., Feb. 19 -- Nothing stands all that tall in Viera, Fla., which is exactly the problem. The land stretches flat and far, a quilt of baseball diamonds and golf courses, with only a few churches and strip malls on the horizon. On days when the wind whips through town, nothing is around to stop it, and in those moments, Viera becomes quite the lousy place to make a strong impression during batting practice.

On Thursday, just in time for the Washington Nationals' first full-squad workout, the wind went crazy. Batting practice pitchers threw balls that danced like boomerangs. Players who ran sprints into the gusts looked like fish avoiding the tug of a line. The wind grew so noisy, you couldn't even hear the clack-clack of metal cleats on concrete.

For the Nationals, the raging weather -- "Unbelievable," first baseman Brad Eldred called it -- offered just one benefit. It gave every last guy on the roster an easy thing to talk about.

On the first real day of spring training, the Nationals, as any club would, postured themselves as a team. Manager Manny Acta addressed the group, beginning at 8:30 a.m., and explained the team rules, the expectations, the fact that effort can win you a job. Later, the team took to the field and stretched in a grid. They even formed an all-hands-in circle before splitting into smaller units for drills.

But really, the first day of spring training is too vast for unity. No day in baseball's annual calendar presents a wider experiential range. Newcomers feel like newcomers. Veterans joke. Fringe players worry. A few lucky ones don't. Destin Hood, a high school student just a year ago, shared an outfield with Adam Dunn. Pete Orr took grounders on the same field as guys named Matt Whitney and Freddie Bynum. One field over, Cristian Guzmán made easy throws to Nick Johnson.

During batting practice, when Dmitri Young started pounding balls into the corner, he shouted to nobody in particular: "Keep throwing that ball away. I'm gonna keep getting that double over there." When Eldred, who hasn't had a major league at-bat since 2007, hit a few slow rollers minutes later, he left the cage and blew a vibration through his closed lips. All these guys, they had one thing in common. They could talk about the weather.

* * *

Eldred, 28, found out about the wind right away. He's new to the Nationals, and at 6 feet 5 and 275 pounds, he's already one of the most visible monuments in Viera. But during the five-minute walk from the clubhouse to the practice field, he was very much alone, moving in silence. He wore No. 67, and carried his gear in a navy bag slung over his left shoulder. When a prop plane buzzed overhead, Eldred looked up.

"For me, being in a new place, I don't really know anybody yet," Eldred said.

It was kind of like the first day of school, and when all the infielders paired up for warmup throwing, there happened to be an uneven number. So Eldred joined the lone group of three, and wound up heaving balls 100 feet into the wind. A few of them fell short, and Whitney, No. 75, picked them up on a bounce.

* * *

"My very first spring training -- the first time I came into this clubhouse -- we had some big major league guys," said Jason Bergmann, now beginning his fifth big league season. "Liván Hernández, all-stars, big-time players. I got my ticket to come up here, and I was like, this is a locker room of major league baseball players. This is a huge deal for me.

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